Let's Fret: The Jackrabbits of South Dakota State

By BenSewardLewis on June 7, 2022 at 2:30 pm
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© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
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It's Never Too Soon to Worry!

Hey. It’s finally summer! It’s actually fun to go outside now. So many cool activities are on the table. Certainly most of you don’t want to spend these precious months worrying about football games that are three months away. Unfortunately for those of us sun-fearing ghouls that look at the outside world the way that cats look at cucumbers, the anxiety about the football season has already crept in. For my fellow dweebs or anybody desperate for summertime football content, I’m going to be doing a weekly dive into each of Iowa’s 2022 opponents, getting to know them a little bit better, articulating why we should be worried about them, and conjuring up scenarios in which Iowa can *maybe* eke out a win.

First up is Iowa’s week one opponent, the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State. If you saw this game on Iowa’s schedule and thought, “FCS team. Sweet. Should be an easy W,” I forgive you. I thought the same thing. But if you look under the hood of this 1992 Honda Civic, you will see the engine of an F1 car. Let's start with their head coach. The Jackrabbits have one of the only head coaches in all of college football, John Stiegelmeier, that has manned his post for longer than Kirk Ferentz, having taken over as the head coach for the Jackrabbits in 1997.

While it took him over a decade, Steigelmeier turned South Dakota State into an FCS powerhouse. The Jackrabbits first made the playoffs in 2009 and again in 2012, and have made the playoffs literally every year since. This is the longest active playoff streak you will find south of Fargo, North Dakota. Even if you take notice of the fact that the Jackrabbits are replacing an offensive coordinator and a co-defensive coordinator, you should probably keep your Grinch-sized grin about the turnover in check, because the hands at the wheel are too steady to hope for an off year.

So maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Yeah yeah. They make the 2A playoffs or whatever you call it. So flippin’ what? How do they do against the big dogs?” That’s a fair question, hypothetical reader that I just made up. Their overall record is a not-eye-popping 2-9. One of those wins was a not particularly noteworthy high-scoring 41-38 nail-biter against Big 12 bottom-feeder Kansas in 2015. The other win was a very-decisive 42-23 victory over Colorado State in 2021. (Fun aside, the Golden Gophers needed a late TD and 2-point conversion to beat SDSU during their magical 2019 season.)

About that last one? Some of you surely remember that Colorado State is a team that our beloved Hawkeyes also played in 2021. If your brain has blotted out the details of that game, let me remind you: Iowa won 24-14 but that score belies how actually close the game was. We can ignore the gritty details, but let's look at the yardage totals for both of these two games:

Iowa - 278 yards     Colorado State - 250 yards
SDSU - 466 yards   Colorado State - 462 yards

It's no surprise that Iowa’s defense is magnificent and Iowa’s offense is putrescent, but the real eye bleach is the running total comparison: SDSU ran the ball 34 times for 242 yards, a blistering 7.1 yards a carry. Iowa carried the ball 32 times for a miniscule 54 yards, inverting SDSU's ypc at 1.7 yards a carry. So, yeah, Iowa's running game was probably low-tier Missouri Valley last year. (If you are curious, the passing numbers are comparable, save Petras’ ghastly interception.)

I bring those stats up not to take you down a peg or two, but mostly to segue into what SDSU did really well last year, namely running the ball and stopping the run. They ranked 2nd in the Missouri Valley Conference at 5.8 yards/carry on 553 rushes. Defensively they held teams to 3.3 yards/carry and just under 110 yards/game. As a passing offense they were a solid 5th with 228.9 yards/game in the Missouri Valley, which was more than enough to actually complement the running game and set the Jackrabbits up with the pound-for-pound best offense in the conference in 2021. If the Jackrabbits do anything “poorly,” it was a pass defense that ranked 8th in the Missouri Valley, but if you have confidence that our Hawkeyes can shred even a mid-tier Missouri Valley Conference pass defense, I’d love to get high on whatever is in your supply.

Astute readers will probably take note of the fact that Pierre Strong Jr., SDSU’s stud running back that dominated the Missouri Valley in every single rushing category, is now riding Bill Belicheck’s running back carousel in Foxboro. Maybe you take solace in the fact that SDSU's quarterback, Chris Oladokun, is currently grinding it out in Pittsburgh to become the next backup quarterback for the Steelers. And hey, if Iowa does anything consistently well, it is shutting down competent running games, even weird spread running games, so the Hawkeyes should be able to contain the Jackrabbits offense, right? Well, we haven't yet talked about Jackrabbit quarterback Mark Gronowski.

Gronowski started for the Jackrabbits as a true freshman in the 2020-2021 season, which in reality was the spring season the Missouri Valley elected to have in 2021 when the fall 2020 season was cancelled. Gronowski was quite good passing the ball, going 108/188 for 1565 yards (8.3 yards an attempt), throwing 15 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. (For shits and giggles, Petras was 165/288 for 1880 yards, 10 touchdowns, and nine interceptions; roughly 6.5 yards an attempt.) But if you were hoping that Gronowski was doing a Statue of Liberty impersonation back there, think again sucker. He also had 83 rushes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. And oh hello, he even caught a 24-yard-touchdown pass. 

Gronowski was a big part of the Jackrabbits making the FCS championship game in spring 2021. Then, he busted his knee on the first drive of the title game against Sam Houston State, which was a big part of why the Jackrabbits lost that game. It also meant that he couldn't play in the fall 2021 season. All indication is that Mark's hitting all the, ahem, marks, needed to be ready to go on September 3rd to start the next chapter of his legacy, which presumably starts with leading the Jackrabbits to one of their best victories ever.

As for who Gronowski is throwing the ball to, let me introduce you to Tucker Kraft and the Double Double Js. Tucker Kraft is the Jackrabbit's tight end and was 13th among all passcatchers in the Missouri Valley in averaging 51.5 receiving yards per game, finishing the season with 65 catches for 773 yards and six TDs. (LaPorta was 16th in terms of ypg in the Big Ten.) Who are the Double Double Js? They are Jaxon and Jadon Janke, SDSU's senior twin wide receivers. Jaxon averaged 78.4 yards a carry, good for third in MVC, totalling 1176 yards on 72 catches with five TDs. Jadon averaged a "mere" 43.7 yards per game, from 41 catches for 655 yards and nine TDs.

If you are keeping score at home, here's what SDSU brings to the table: solid coaching, a defense more than capable of snuffing out Iowa's rushing attack, an excellent dual-threat quarterback who rarely turns the ball over, a deep receiving corps, and has a talented squad that had no trouble dominating a team that gave Iowa fits last year. They also have a massive "let's go get the program's best ever win" chip on their shoulder. It is not hard to imagine a truly disgusting 17-13 lead for Iowa deep into the 4th quarter. It takes only slightly more imagination to see Gronowski getting flushed out of the pocket before finding one of his receivers running loose down the sideline for a devastating touchdown, followed by one final flaccid Iowa drive for zero points.

So what needs to happen to avoid this horrific future? Here is a lame acronym that I just made up: RES (Rush Effectively Stupid). It is a fool's hope to predict some massive stride from Iowa's passing game, regardless of who is chucking the football. There is zero reason to think that happens. (Prove me wrong, Brian. I dare you.) It is a standard-issue hope to look for substantial improvements in the running game. We can pencil in anywhere between 13-23 points for SDSU, but some modest improvements by offensive line and ferocious running by Williams and Williams, C.B.A.s, should be enough to bring Iowa's running game towards mediocrity, which should be more than enough to wear down the Jackrabbits and a somewhat comfortable victory. RES Baby, RES!!

Ben's Anxiety Scale: 3/10

The Hawkeye Homer Version of the Article: Hawks will dominate an overmatched FCS team and turn them into Rabbit Stew! Hawks by a million!!

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